By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
To learn more about Hungary past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Lonnie Johnson's Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends is the best history overview of Hungary and the surrounding nations. John Lukacs' Budapest 1900 is a scholarly but readable cultural study that captures Budapest at its turn-of-the-20th-century zenith. Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water is the vividly recounted memoir of a young man who traveled by foot and on horseback across the Balkan Peninsula (including Hungary) in 1933. András Török's irreverent Budapest: A Critical Guide, while technically a guidebook, offers more local insight (and wit) than any other source. Timothy Garton Ash has written several good "eyewitness account" books analyzing the transition in Central and Eastern Europe over the last two decades, including History of the Present and The Magic Lantern. Tina Rosenberg's dense but thought-provoking The Haunted Land asks how individuals who actively supported communist regimes should be treated in the post-communist age. For information on Eastern European Roma (Gypsies), consider the textbook-style We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock, and the more literary Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca. And for a look at life during communist times — albeit not in Hungary — Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić has written a pair of insightful essay collections from a woman's perspective: Café Europa: Life After Communism and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.
Imre Kertész, a Hungarian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), which chronicles the experience of a young concentration-camp prisoner. Arthur Phillips' confusingly titled novel Prague tells the story of American expats negotiating young-adult life in post-communist Budapest, where they often feel one-upped by their compatriots doing the same in the Czech capital (hence the title). Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March details the decline of an aristocratic family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Newbery Honor book Zlateh the Goat (Isaac Bashevis Singer) includes seven folktales of Jewish Eastern Europe.
One of the more accessible films for an introduction to Budapest is Sunshine (1999, starring Ralph Fiennes, directed by István Szabó; not to be confused with Danny Boyle's very different 2007 film of the same name). Tracing three generations of an aristocratic Jewish family in Budapest — from the Golden Age, through the Holocaust, to the Cold War — Sunshine is an enlightening if melodramatic look at recent Hungarian history.
For Hungarian-language films, one of the biggest crossover hits of recent years is the surreal dark comedy Kontroll (2003), about ticket inspectors on the Budapest Metró whose lives are turned upside down by a serial killer lurking in the shadows. Fateless, the 2005 adaptation of Imre Kertész's Nobel Prize-winning novel about a young man in a concentration camp, was scripted by Kertész himself. The 1998 Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days chronicles the fate of Jews when the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944. The Witness (A Tanú, a.k.a. Without a Trace, 1969), a cult classic about a simple man who mysteriously wins the favor of communist bigwigs, is a biting satire of the darkest days of Soviet rule. Time Stands Still (Megáll Az Idö), a hit at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of young Hungarians in the 1960s. Children of Glory (Szabadság, Szerelem, 2006) dramatizes the true story of the Hungarian water polo team that defiantly trounced the Soviets at the Olympics just after the 1956 Uprising.
Many American studios have taken advantage of Hungary's low prices to film would-be blockbusters in Budapest (such as the 2002 Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson action-comedy I Spy — a terrible film that makes wonderful use of many real Budapest settings). More often, Budapest stands in for other cities — for example, as Buenos Aires in Madonna's 1996 film Evita, and as various European locales in Stephen Spielberg's 2005 film Munich.
Two German movies — while not about Hungary — are still excellent for their insight into the surreal and paranoid days of the Soviet Bloc. The Oscar-winning Lives of Others (2006) chronicles the constant surveillance that the communist regime employed to keep potential dissidents in line. For a funny and nostalgic look at post-communist Europe's fitful transition to capitalism, Good Bye Lenin! (2003) can't be beat.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Budapest guidebook.